CU vs. San Diego State Preview: “T.I.P.S.” for Buffs’ hastily arranged home game

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any more bizarre.

When Arizona State canceled last week, Colorado knew about it right away, with the Sun Devils backing out the day after the Stanford game. There were some overtures about other opportunities last week, but the Pac-12 didn’t come up with guidelines for substituting non-conference games until it was too late for the Buffs to schedule a game.

This week, there was no such advanced notice. USC said all the right things about playing … right up until the time the game was called off on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Now, the Buffs have less than 48 hours to prepare for their game against San Diego State. The Aztecs are 3-2 on the 2020 season. They were able to play all of their first five games, with their sixth game, against Fresno State, called off this past Sunday.

It’s going to be a busy Friday at the Champions Center, as the CU coaches and players try to prepare for an unknown opponent …

This Week’s “T.I.P.S” for CU v. San Diego State – Saturday, 3:00 p.m., MT, Pac-12 Networks

T – Talent 

Last season, San Diego State finished with a 10-3 record, including a 23-14 win over UCLA in Pasadena. The Aztecs finished off their ten-win campaign with a 48-11 romp over Central Michigan in the New Mexico Bowl.

Head coach Rocky Long, after taking the Aztecs to nine straight bowl games, retired, replaced by Brady Hoke. Hoke is back at San Diego for a second time. Hoke originally hired Long as his defensive coordinator at SDSU in 2009. Long became head coach after Hoke took the Michigan job before the 2011 season. Hoke was fired after four seasons at Michigan and returned to the SDSU staff last fall, coaching the defensive line.

The one side of the ball at which San Diego State has struggled of late is on the offensive side. The Aztecs were 110th in total offense and 112th in scoring offense last year (and still managed to win ten games!). San Diego State was breaking in a new quarterback, sophomore Carson Baker, but Baker was replaced in SDSU’s most recent game by junior Lucas Johnson, who went 14-for-24 for 184 yards and a touchdown in the Aztec’s 26-21 loss to Nevada.

The player to keep an eye on when San Diego State has the ball is running back Greg Bell. The senior had four-100 yard games to open the season before being held to 28 yards on nine carries against Nevada. Overall, San Diego State is 11th in the nation in rushing, going for 246.0 yards per game. (If the name sounds familiar, this is the same Greg Bell who played for Nebraska. Bell had 104 yards on 13 carries in CU’s 33-28 win over the Cornhuskers in Lincoln in 2018).

The strength of the team is the defense. San Diego State was fifth in nation in total defense last year (287.8 yards/game) and second in the nation in scoring defense (12.7 points/game).

Re-read that last sentence … it’s not a typo.

This fall, there has been little in the way of fall off. Aztecs are third in the country in total defense, surrendering only 269.4 yards/game, and eighth in scoring defense, giving up only 15.4 points/game.

Seven starters return from last year’s dominant team, with five players receiving some form of all-conference honors. Last season, San Diego State forced three-and-outs 46.5% of its opponent’s possessions, second only to Clemson nationally. So far this fall, the Aztecs are fourth in the nation in third down defense.

Translation … San Diego State doesn’t score a great deal of points, but are good – very good – at holding its opponents down. The Buffs are likely to stick with much of their USC game plan on offense, and will need to rely on superior talent to keep moving the chains … and getting the ball into the end zone.

I – Intangibles 

Motivation is a powerful tool in college football. The more motivated team is the more focused team. They play better … and can defeat a team with more talent.

Such was the formula the Buffs (and their fans) were relying on for their game against the more talented USC Trojans.

The Buffs would have been the spirited underdog in the Coliseum … but now they are the hunted instead of the hunter.

The Aztecs played above their station last year, taking down UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 23-14. The year before, the Aztecs got their shot at No. 23 Arizona State, and won 28-21.

The chance of San Diego State being intimidated by playing a team from the big, bad Pac-12? Zero.

The chance that San Diego State – which regularly plays in Ft. Collins, Laramie, and Colorado Springs – will be daunted by the altitude of Folsom Field? Zero.

On the other side of the ball, how motivated are the Buffs to play the Aztecs? The Buffs have gone from playing a feature game, on ABC, at the primo 1:30 p.m., MT, slot … to playing at 3:00 p.m., MT, on the Pac-12 Networks … a Network which was, after laying off most of its staff this fall, showing nothing but reruns for the past few months.

Pretty large comedown.

Plus, there is the assumption that the Buffs will not have any issues taking down a team from the Mountain West Conference. The Buffs get to play at home. The Buffs are undefeated.

The Buffs are young. They opened up big leads against UCLA and Stanford, then held on in the second half. If form holds, however, the San Diego State defense will frustrate the Buff offense.

Will the young Buffs be able to handle the extra pressure? The Buff Nation has been very impressed with the attitude the Buffs have carried under Karl Dorrell, staying even keeled, even when things weren’t going their way.

We’ll see if that even disposition holds on Saturday.

P – Preparation/Schedule

There are reports that San Diego State has been preparing for the Buffs since Tuesday, when a verbal agreement was reached to have CU v. San Diego State as a backup.

It makes sense.

The San Diego State/Fresno State game was canceled on Sunday. The Aztecs had the choice of spending two weeks to prepare for their game next weekend against Colorado State (insert joke about the Rams here), or start thinking about whether there were possible replacements.

With the Pac-12 setting out a policy for playing non-conference games last week, San Diego State knew what it would take to get a game against a Pac-12 opponent, including extra testing … and going on the road.

If San Diego State has been preparing for CU much of the week, while the Buffs had their sights set on playing the Trojans … huge advantage to the Aztecs.

When asked Wednesday whether CU was spending any time on San Diego State, Karl Dorrell indicated that the Buffs were not. “(If USC can’t play), then we have to move forward with another opponent,” Dorrell said. “We haven’t had a chance to really look at anyone other than (USC). If that does change, we’ll be hitting in overdrive, trying to pick up the pieces that we need to do to get ready to play a different team.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see some trick plays from San Diego State as the Aztecs try to take advantage of their added prep time.

S – Statistics 

— Talk about shifting gears … Against USC, the biggest fear for the Buff Nation was watching CU’s porous pass defense going up against one of the top wide receiver corps in the nation. Now, the Buffs are facing the 115th-ranked passing offense, going for only 155.0 yards/game;

— San Diego State has hit double digits in wins four of the last five years. To string together four CU records with ten wins or more, you have to go back to 1995 (2016, 2001; 1996; 1995);

— The Aztec secondary is one of the best in the nation, led by Tariq Thomson and Darren Hall. The defensive line has two first-team All-Mountain West performers in Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks. San Diego State plays a 3-3-5 defense … which will be an adjustment for the CU coaches and players.

— The Buffs, despite being undefeated and playing at home, are listed as only a 3.5-point favorite over the Aztecs;

— In Athlon’s preseason magazine, San Diego State was listed as the No. 83 team in the nation; Colorado No. 94. Lindy’s had the Aztecs rated No. 53 nationally; the Buffs, 62nd;

— San Diego State hasn’t allowed over 30 points to an opponent since the final game of the 2018 season, falling to Hawai’i, 31-30 … in overtime;

— The three teams San Diego State has defeated this year have a combined record of 3-11. The two teams the Aztecs have lost to are a combined 9-0 (Nevada and San Jose State). In neither loss did the victor score over 30 points (San Jose State defeated SDSU 28-17; Nevada won 26-21.

Prediction … Patience. Patience. Patience.

There are those in the Buff Nation who see this game as a blowout victory. The Buffs are more talented, more disciplined, and have played better competition.

True, but if talent were the only relevant factor, the Buffs would have had no chance against USC this weekend.

I expect the Aztecs will be well motivated. They are also, at least on paper, to be the better prepared team.

Overconfidence should not be something that permeates the Champions Center. Look no further than last year’s results:

  • San Diego State at UCLA … Result: San Diego State 23, UCLA 14;
  • Colorado at UCLA … Result: UCLA 31, Colorado 14.

The SDSU defense is stout. You don’t post top ten rankings in both scoring defense and total defense year-in and year-out with smoke and mirrors.

The Aztecs will play aggressively on defense, trying to force the Buff offense into making mistakes. San Diego State has forced nine turnovers this fall, and will try and create short fields for their offense on Saturday.

On the other side of the ball, the San Diego State offense is not as scary – certainly not as scary as what the Buffs would have faced against the Trojans.

The Aztecs will try and run the ball and control the clock, shortening the game and keeping the score low.

History tells us that they are pretty good at that, coming to Boulder with 11th in the nation in rushing offense.

Which leads me back to … Patience. Patience. Patience.

The Buffs may come out of the Champions Center believing they are already ahead, 21-0, or that they should have a similar score by the end of the first quarter.

Ain’t gonna happen. Not against this defense.

The Buffs need to stay true to their game plan against the Trojans – what the Aztecs will try against them – control the ball, control the clock. Take what the defense gives you. The Buffs can’t get impatient, and try for 50-yard bombs, winding up with third-and-10’s most of the afternoon.

CU’s offensive line, along with its talent at running back and wide receiver, should be able to – with time – wear down the Aztecs. If the Buffs don’t get ahead of themselves, and try to do too much too quickly, they can score against this defense.

On the defensive side, the Buffs will need to be physical. San Diego State can’t beat them through the air, so it will be a test of wills in the trenches. Keeping the Aztecs at third-and-long all afternoon will help. If its third-and-two all afternoon … the Buffs could be in trouble.

Going from the underdog to the favorite is new territory for the Buffs under Karl Dorrell. Colorado was a touchdown underdog to both UCLA and Stanford, and a two-touchdown underdog to USC.

Now, the Buffs are expected to win.

That’s a different mindset. A different burden.

It won’t be pretty. It won’t be easy.

But I believe that Karl Dorrell has this team believing in itself, and will be able to overcome adversities.

Colorado 27, San Diego State 17 … 

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10 Replies to ““T.I.P.S.” for CU v. San Diego State”

  1. I like many are disappointed that we hadn’t been given an opportunity to finally move past unlucky 13 versus USC and finally beat USC, on the road no less. I’m probably overly optimistic about this Buffs team against a representative SDSU squad. But it’s at home in a year where fan crowd means little…Stats mean little too…CU keeps its balance…Coaches revel but keep on coaching en route to a 51-36 win over the Aztecs

  2. This feels like the type of game that previous Buff teams did not handle well. Meaning, they were favored (which was rare) and then underachieved, and sometimes (aka Beavers- I guess I still need couch time for that loss) with a bowl bid on the line. Rocky Long is a proven successful coach, SDSU has a strong defense, and they are motivated. Will this version of the Buffs be different? This game will be telling, IMO, from a cultural/mindset standpoint. I hope the same Buffs show up as the last two games with one exception: keep the gas pedal down all the way to the end. I certainly don’t expect a blowout by the Buffs and can see an upset. But I am going with the Buffs in another tight one: CU 24 SDSU 21.

    1. So I was originally concerned about taking the foot off of the pedal in the 4th against Stanford. Especially because Noyer was doing so well. But when I heard Dorrell talk about it I am starting to think differently. I think Dorrell hit the 12 minute mark and did the math….. he was ahead by 19 points. To tie the game Stanford would have to score 2 touchdowns, 2 2 point conversions, kick an onside kick and recover, and then kick a field goal to tie. Which meant that CU would get a minimum of 3 possessions. If the Buffs run the ball all three down of all three possessions, use an average of 5 seconds per play, and Stanford uses all three of their time outs it is a total of:
      3 plays + punt, Stanford stops the clock 3 times so you only use up 20 seconds
      6 plays + 2 punts, 4:40.
      So following this format you have run 5 minutes off of the clock. If you make 1 first down in this series (which we did) you take another 40 seconds to 2 minutes off of the clock.

      This leaves only 7 minutes for them to do everything they needed to.

      With this you tell the defense to make sure they are never beat deep so Stanford is forced to eat up clock with no time outs. Stanford is not known for its go go hurry up offense.

      I think Dorrell looked at all of this and said the math says they cannot do it. Too much stuff that would have to happen….. did it get close, ya it did, but I suspect we did exactly what we had to do to win.

      I am not sure I like the approach but the win is more important than the loss.

  3. Not impressed.
    Their wins came against 2 of the worst teams in the mac with the third being in the lower third. Its where they got all their stats too.

    They lost to the two best in the conference

    Buffs win Buffs win……………………….by a lot

  4. Informative t.i.p.s. Others who know more can correct me if I’m wrong, but a 3-3-5 defense either has 3 very strong & good d-line men or are bring up a LB or two help out, and if they are blitzing probably 2 & maybe sometimes 3? If the first 6 are stacking the box & going for short yardage stops then are the back 5 playing zone or man 2 man?

    I’m betting that CU spent the 1st week getting their own act cleaned up & healing, and spent the second concentrating on USC, but since they are not traveling, the time from finding out & the game should allow them to catch up on some of the prep time SDSU had before having to pack, travel & get into a hotel.

    Spending some of that time concentrating on what they needed to clean up on offense is in it self prep for both games. Add in if Nixon is now healthy, he’s a new wrinkle for the offense too & the Buffs have their own advantage to this game; and there is more tape on this year’s SDSU team than the Buffs too.

    I’m betting the Buffs slow their run & get the ball back for the offense (giving them more opportunities) & the front line wear out their d-line allowing CU’s rushing game to open some play action & passing to one CU’s 4, 5 or even 6 different receivers/TEs & receiving TB.

    Buffs 37, SDSU 16.

    1. I am watching the Nevada SDSU game and they are running man a lot. They bring a line backer almost every pass play.

      They are throwing a whole lot more in this game than you would have thought by there stats but the new qb has a pretty good stroke. If we haven’t cleaned up the pass interference there will be more.

  5. Great write up! I really liked what you said about patience and not going for the long bomb. I totally agree that if we play our game we can win this one. Has anyone else noticed we have stopped throwing the fade route? Don’t get me wrong some of the greatest plays we have had in the last couple of years was the fade route to Brown and Shenault. But I like that we are throwing to routes that are built on receivers being opened not on perfectly thrown balls and athletic receivers going and getting them. How many wasted fade throws occurred in the previous 2-3 years….

    I also did not realize how good a defense this was we are going against. This will be a good test of our running game and Chiav’s play calling…. I am excited to see how our scheme does against a real good secondary and if the o line can hold up against the pass rush as well.

    Seeing what you wrote above it looks like when we are on D it is going to be strength of strength. Their run o versus our run d. I will take Landman every time.

    I am predicting a very low scoring game with both teams slowing the clock down. 24 – 20 CU coming out on top.

    Thanks for the write up Stuart. When I heard about this game I was disappointed and thought it would be an easy win. I think this game is going to be fun to watch after reading your write up!

  6. I’m sticking with my original prediction from yesterday 38-27 Buffs, I should say SDSU as I’m happily 0-2 in predictions

  7. If the Buffs win this week against SDSU and next week at Arizona, Coach Dorrell will continue his record of never having a losing season as a head coach. Critics have said he only had two winning seasons at UCLA. They neglect to add that the others were .500, and not losing seasons. Coach Dorrell is steady, organized, very much rock-solid. C.U. has a wonderful coach for the long haul, and, perhaps, the national Coach of the Year. However, in coach’s speak “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,…” That being said, C.U.’s good fortune in hiring Coach Dorrell is wonderful to ponder.

    1. They may have stumbled into a very good coach and a great fit. Right guy, right time. Still too early to know for sure, but how they perform today will be another good snapshot.

      If the o and d lines do their thing, Buffs cruise to a win. 38-21.

      Go Buffs

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